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Trade Paperback
208 pages
Sep 2006

Truth with Love: The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer

by Bryan A. Follis

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Calvin and the Reformed Tradition


To provide a benchmark against which to measure Francis Schaeffer, this chapter will examine John Calvin’s views on the knowledge of God. In particular, as Calvin’s writings often emerged in a polemic context, I wish to consider the point that his notion of the image of God in man took on different meanings in different contexts. This has led to different interpretations within the Reformed tradition of his teaching about the relationship of faith and reason. These different interpretations have thus affected the role accorded to reason in apologetics, and so distinctive schools of apologetics have developed.1 This chapter will therefore also explain the different approaches of some key Reformed thinkers who have exercised an influence on Francis Schaeffer. This will help us evaluate Schaeffer’s own style of apologetics.

Calvin and Philosophy in Context

Given the fact that within Reformed Christianity the Scriptures occupy a primary place in Christian epistemology, some Reformed writers stress that without God’s revelation “we cannot trust reason, sense experience, intuition, or any other methods purporting to give knowledge.”2 Sometimes in their eagerness to distinguish Calvin’s approach from that of the Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), it is stated that Calvin found knowledge of God in Scripture alone. However, Calvin’s teachings on the sources of our knowledge of God are more complex than some are willing to accept. Calvin needs to be understood in the context of his time, and that means recognizing the intellectual influences that guided his thinking.

Calvin, more than Luther, came from a background colored by Renaissance humanism, and there was some continuity of thought with the humanist tradition after his conversion.3 Rejecting the other-worldliness of medieval scholasticism (which had developed from the writings of Thomas Aquinas), this humanism accepted the worth of earthly existence for its own sake. Following the French humanists, Calvin decried what he perceived as an overreliance on reason by the scholastics. He also attacked the scholastics for their view that grace is both operative (given by God alone) and cooperative (man working with God). Calvin believed that this implied a natural ability in human nature to seek the good. Indeed for the Reformers, the abuses of the medieval church and its whole penitential system resulted from a false epistemology. It was wrong knowledge that led to wrong practice, for a “natural knowledge of God is void of true soteriological [i.e., saving] knowledge.”4 Some Reformed commentators trace this to Aquinas, whom they view as the first great proponent of a natural theology distinguishable from revealed theology. He sought to draw upon the philosophy of Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) and to reclaim reason as a tool in Christian theology. Andrew Hoffecker has even suggested that the synthesis produced by Aquinas included heretical elements from Pelagius (a fourth-century monk) insofar as reason remains “unscathed by the fall, and the will is only partially debilitated by sin.”5

Although Calvin criticized those who followed Aristotle for their reliance on human reason and free will, and Zwingli, who led the Reformation in Zurich, was outspoken in his anti-scholasticism and anti-Aristotelianism, it is wrong to view the Reformation as completely overthrowing the Aristotelian inheritance bequeathed by Aquinas. Indeed as Alister McGrath has noted, Aristotelianism stubbornly persisted in Renaissance humanism to “the intense irritation of those who prefer to regard the Renaissance as essentially a Platonist reaction against scholastic Aristotelianism.”6 Calvin was interested in humanism’s concept of natural law, and it is inconceivable that there was no Aristotelian influence in this. Colin Brown finds not only similarities between Calvin and Aquinas but also extensive use of Aristotelian ideas by Calvin, not least in his articulation of the doctrine of election and predestination. Brown regards it as “tantalizing” to ask about philosophical influences on Calvin, and he speculates as to whether the Reformer’s doctrines were “purely and simply biblical theology” as he believed them to be.7 However, without further evidence this is only speculation. Furthermore, recognizing a residual Aristotelianism in Calvin’s thought—such as Aristotle’s concept of a fourfold causality— does not allow us to say that his theology was not under the supremacy of Scripture. Indeed, in a comparison of Calvin’s exposition of Romans 9 (on election and predestination) with that by Aquinas, Steinmetz found that several of Aquinas’s most characteristic modifications of the Augustinian tradition found “no corresponding echo” in Calvin’s exposition.8

While Calvin was prepared to draw upon non-scriptural sources, they were always subservient to Scripture and often used to confirm it, as is seen in his dialogue with Cicero in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. As McGrath notes, Calvin accepted classical wisdom in Christian theology “in that it demonstrates the necessity of, and partially verifies the substance of, divine revelation.”9 But when any secular or religious teaching or philosophical ideas were contrary to Scripture, such as natural theology on the scholastic pattern, Calvin regarded them as inadmissible. This was the same approach as that to his use of Patristic sources (which he frequently quoted). Calvin treats “the Fathers as partners in conversation rather than as authorities in the medieval sense of the term. They stimulate Calvin in his reflections on the text. . . . Nevertheless, they do not have the last word. Paul does.”10 Yet Calvin did not say that without Scripture man does not have some natural consciousness of God. He believed that “there exists in the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity.”11 What we need to consider is just what Calvin meant by this.

The Image of God

The Bible states that to be human means to be made “in the image of God,” but the relevant passages (Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1-2; 9:6-7) do not define precisely what this means. For Augustine—from whose intellectual well Calvin was to drink deeply—it was the human capacity to reason that distinguished human from animal nature and by which contact was made with the divine. Although Augustine saw knowing God as primarily an intellectual matter, Sherlock argues, it was not a rationalistic understanding of “image” in that something far richer than mere “head knowledge” (i.e., creative thought) was meant.12 Modern writers tend to have a very restrictive view of reason, and it is important that we do not read back into Augustine a contemporary understanding that is less than his concept of creative thought. Returning to the issue of the image of God in mankind, was it completely lost in the Fall? If one stresses the relational character of the image—that one stands in proper relationship with God—then for Calvin the image was destroyed by the Fall. However, Calvin also maintained that man still enjoyed “noble endowments which bespeak the divine presence with us.”13

Brian Gerrish has noted that “scholars have found an ambiguity in Calvin’s answer to the question: ‘Is the image of God lost in the fallen man?’”14 However, this apparent contradiction in Calvin’s thought is resolved when we understand the comprehensive conception he had of the image of God. Luther did not “seek the image of God in any of the natural endowments of man, such as his rational and moral powers, but exclusively in original righteousness, and therefore regarded it as entirely lost by sin.”15 By contrast, Calvin believed that the image of God extends to everything that makes human nature distinct from the other species of animals, and while the whole image was damaged by sin, only the spiritual qualities were completely lost. Indeed he said, “since reason, by which man discerns between good and evil, and by which he understands and judges, is a natural gift, it could not be entirely destroyed.”16 Man did not become a brute animal; he is still man, for in spite of his fall “there are still some sparks which show that he is a rational animal.” Calvin was convinced “that one of the essential properties of our nature is reason, which distinguishes us from the lower animals.”17 Yet Calvin did not regard man as being made in the image of God simply because he has reason. Rather, as Edward Dowey points out, the ability to reflect God’s glory and worship Him was also a key distinguishing characteristic.18

Although humanity retains the image of God (albeit in a reduced form), Calvin argued that this light was “so smothered by clouds of darkness” that in relation to a saving knowledge of God, people were “blinder than moles.”19 Nevertheless, Calvin is keen to stress Paul’s teaching that though we are unable without divine revelation to rise to a pure and clear knowledge of God, we cannot plead ignorance. Drawing upon Romans 1:18-28, Calvin argued that verse 20 clearly teaches that since people may know about God from His created world, they are “without excuse” and hence have “an utter incapacity to bring any defence to prevent them from being justly accused before the judgement-seat of God.”20 However, this knowledge about God is not saving knowledge of God and is inadequate because of our blindness. We are not so blind that we don’t realize the necessity of worshiping God, but our judgment “fails here before it discovers the nature or character of God.” The problem is not a lack of evidence or knowledge but a moral deficiency: we refuse to submit to the evidence that God provides. For Calvin (as for Paul) we see enough to keep us from making excuses, but our blindness prevents us from reaching our goal, and it is only by the gift of faith and its light that “man can gain real knowledge from the work of creation.”21

The Character of Our Knowledge

Medieval scholasticism taught that there is a natural law—i.e., a moral order divinely implanted in all people that is accessible by reason.22 At times Calvin seems to go along with this view, but at other times he appears to stress that without divine revelation man would be left in a state of agnosticism. However, not in vain has God

added the light of his Word in order that he might make himself known unto salvation, and bestowed the privilege on those whom he was pleased to bring into nearer and more familiar relation to himself.23

Susan Schreiner suggests that Calvin’s notion of the image of God took on different meanings in different contexts, though not, she argues, contradictory meanings.24 It is important to bear this in mind as we consider Calvin’s understanding of the character of our knowledge of God.

Calvin speaks of a double knowledge: the “simple and primitive knowledge to which the mere course of nature would have conducted us, had Adam stood upright” and the saving knowledge revealed through Scripture that focuses upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who paid the penalty due to us, by which “salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness.”25 Creation continues to provide to all people important points of contact with God, but in His mercy to His Church, God supplements “these common proofs by the addition of his Word, as a surer and more direct means of discovering himself.”26

Calvin believed that Scripture only gives “a saving knowledge of God when its certainty is founded on the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit.”27 Thus it is foolish to attempt to prove to nonbelievers that Scripture is the Word of God as it can only be known as such by faith. Taken in isolation—as it sometimes is—this appears to commit Calvin to fideism—i.e., the view that our knowledge of God is solely based on faith apart from any evidence or rational considerations. However, Calvin accepted that there were also rational grounds for arguing that Scripture is the Word of God and such human testimonies “which go to confirm it will not be without effect, if they are used in subordination to that chief and highest proof [the Holy Spirit], as secondary helps to our weakness.” He devoted a chapter in the Institutes to proving the credibility of Scripture “in so far as natural reason admits.”

While recognizing that such proofs were only “secondary helps,” Calvin seeks to argue against those who ask how we can know that Moses and the prophets wrote the books that bear their names and even “dare to question whether there ever was a Moses.” He draws upon both internal literary evidence and historical background to confirm belief in the Scriptures as God’s Word, while he regards the “many striking miracles” and fulfillment of divine prophecy as validating Moses and the prophets as messengers of God’s Word.28 Calvin finds the very survival of the Scriptures over the centuries to be proof of their divine origin, given the intensity of human opposition to them. He believed that the highest proof of Scripture is taken from the character of Him whose Word it is. If people were reasonable and looked at Scripture “with clear eyes and unbiased judgment, it will forthwith present itself with a divine majesty which will subdue our presumptuous opposition, and force us to do it homage.” Nevertheless, Calvin knew that even if you establish the Scriptures as the Word of God in discussion with nonbelievers, it does “not follow that we shall forthwith implant the certainty which faith requires in their hearts.”29 The Holy Spirit must seal the truth in people’s minds.

Yet Calvin’s willingness to use rational argument about God in preliminary discussion with nonbelievers and to strengthen the faith of believers shows him to be no fideist. He is balanced in his teaching about the positive role of reason in what we would now call apologetics, while still maintaining that the testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason. This balanced approach is also seen in his teaching about the Word and the Spirit working together and his warning against “giddy men” who make “a great display of the superiority of the Spirit and reject all reading of the Scriptures.”30 Calvin’s writings on human nature and the knowledge of God were, as Schreiner points out, “often developed polemically and require attention both to this polemical context and to the perspective out of which he spoke.”31 This explains why Calvin’s notion of the image of God took on different meanings in different contexts.

Calvin and Natural Law

John McNeill has suggested that there was no disagreement between the Scholastic tradition and the Reformers on the subject of natural law, and that might explain why his discussions of it (according to Schreiner) seem “imprecise and unsystematic.”32 Calvin assumed that Scripture, particularly Romans 2:14-15, affirmed the existence of natural law, and in his commentary on this passage he stated that it is beyond all doubt that all men “have certain ideas of justice and rectitude which are implanted by nature in the hearts of men.”33 Apart from the scriptural basis for natural law, Calvin also argued from experience that in addition to naturally knowing right from wrong, people realize in their hearts (as we have already said) that there is a God and that honor and worship are due to Him. Writing in his Institutes, he stated that the human conscience challenges those who would do wrong, and “every man, being stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness, in this way necessarily obtains at least some knowledge of God.” Furthermore, the experience of observing the world around us and the glory of God that is engraved on it means that “we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him.”34

Brown thinks that some might find it strange that Calvin was content to use non-scriptural arguments in this way, but he maintains that if all people “really have a sense of deity, scriptural proof is not needed. If they have got it, they have got it.”35 Calvin had no objection to using argument from outside Scripture for the necessity of revelation. He was ready to employ argument from either experience or natural law to make his point. For example, when opposing those who followed Plato and Aristotle and their reliance on human reason and free will, Calvin used natural law to disprove “the Platonic theory that sin resulted from ignorance.”36 This perhaps reflects his eclectic use of philosophy, which Dowey believes indicates that Calvin was not really “interested in technical epistemology.”37 Calvin was also content to draw upon tradition in the form of Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux to argue that the Fall did not eradicate the activity of the will but that the will (albeit enslaved) is never passive, and even when people can only will in the direction of evil, they choose to do so, for people act “voluntarily and not by compulsion.”38

As Schreiner says, Calvin was not so much interested in natural law in itself but as an idea to explain the continuation of society after the devastating effects of the Fall. The survival and stability of society were due not only to the restraining aspects of divine providence but also to the spiritual remnant of the divine image within each person. Calvin argued that man “is disposed, from natural instinct, to cherish and preserve society,” and “some principle of civil order is impressed on all.”39 Calvin also accepted the distinction between the two realms of existence (i.e., heavenly and earthly) to show how (within the earthly realm) our natural abilities and insights in medicine, science, the arts, and manual skills are blessings to be used “for the common benefit of mankind.”40 Believing that society was the arena in which Christians should seek their holiness, Calvin believed that all have a divine calling to fulfill the cultural mandate, but in doing so we “must exercise moderation, patience, and fidelity in our daily vocation, working as unto the Lord before the face of God.”41

Faith and Reason: Different Reformed Interpretations

In turning from Calvin himself to the role of reason in the Reformed tradition, we notice a variety of interpretations. While this section will examine some of the different interpretations, it is not intended to be a comprehensive history of Reformed thought on the subject. Instead it will highlight a few key Reformed thinkers who have influenced Schaeffer so that we may understand him in context. The different interpretations of the role of reason arise from multiple readings of Calvin’s writings. As noted above, Calvin was not developing a theology of natural law, and perhaps that is why McGrath suggests that his writings on natural law were “sufficiently ambiguous to permit any number of theories and applications.”42 Although Protestantism is less closely associated with natural law than is Roman Catholicism, it is Calvinism that has provided the stage for debate over the past century about natural law and in particular about common grace. Abraham Kuyper, founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, is best remembered for his development of the theological doctrine of common grace. In this he argued that common grace is the foundation of civilized society, since God’s great plan for Creation is achieved through common grace. Common grace is so called because it is believed to be common to all people. Among its benefits is a consciousness within every person “of the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, justice and injustice.”43

Without wishing to deny the doctrine of total depravity, Kuyper gave to common grace an independent role that helped make history and culture possible. Thus he argued that the “tendency in devout circles to oppose the progress and perpetual development of human life was therefore quite misguided.”44 Indeed he urged that the “view that would confine God’s work to the small sector we might label ‘church life’ must be set side . . . for common grace encompasses the whole life of the world.”45 While there has been considerable controversy over the doctrine of common grace, there has never been complete agreement within the Reformed churches about Calvin’s teaching on the image of God. Berkhof points out that some have held to a restricted view (i.e., that the image of God be understood in terms of our relationship to Him and thus to have been destroyed by the Fall). However, it was the broader conception of the image of God (i.e., that the image also includes that which makes human nature distinct) “which became the prevalent one in Reformed theology.”46

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), who has been described by Robert Jenson as the “greatest American Divine,” is an example of a Reformed thinker who gave a broader interpretation to the image of God. He regarded man’s natural reason as “the highest faculty we have,” and he believed that even the heathen realized that “the main business of man was the improvement and exercise of his understanding.”47 Yet, as Edwards argued, the purpose for which God had given mankind the faculty of understanding was that “he might understand divine things.”48 However, in view of man’s fallen state, divinity could not be learned “merely by the improvement of man’s natural reason”49 but required God’s revelation in Scripture. Nevertheless, Edwards still envisaged a key role for reason as man came to know about God. He distinguished between a “natural” and “spiritual” type of divine knowledge, with the former being obtainable by the “natural exercise of our faculties.”50 He therefore encouraged Christians to seek “by reading and other proper means, a good rational knowledge of the things of divinity.”51

Yet Edwards realized that “there is a difference between having a right speculative notion of the doctrines contained in the word of God, and having a due sense of them in the heart.”52 As James Packer has observed, for Edwards salvation was more “than an intellectual grasp of theological ideas . . . [it was] rather, the result of direct divine illumination accompanying the written or spoken word of God.”53 This may appear to contradict the earlier statement that reason plays a key role in a person’s coming to know God. However, any apparent contradiction is resolved by grasping Edwards’s understanding of the actual role of reason. While recognizing the limitation of any knowledge of God obtained by reasoning alone, he argued that we cannot enjoy a “spiritual” knowledge without first having a “natural” (or rational) knowledge of divine things. Thus the “special illumination of the Spirit of God” was not some abstract or mystical experience, for he was convinced that “God deals with man as with a rational creature.”54 Hence “no object can come at the heart but through the door of the understanding: and there can be no spiritual knowledge of that of which there is not first a rational knowledge.”55 Reason, for Edwards, was inadequate but essential: before one can know God, one has to know about God.

In nineteenth-century America, Princeton became the premier seminary of Reformed scholarship, and B. B. Warfield, who taught there from 1887 until 1921, was its preeminent professor of theology. Dr. Carl Trueman suggests that “we have no one like him today in terms of the sweep of his interests and his apparently omnivorous theological mind.”56 Warfield frequently asserted that the Christian faith is a reasonable faith based on good and sufficient evidence, not a blind and ungrounded faith.57 Apologetics was therefore highly rated, and he even argued that “it is impossible to form any vital conception of God without some movement of intellect.”58 Warfield also argued that Calvin saw a role for theistic proofs (i.e., arguments proving the existence of God), albeit with value more “for developing the knowledge of God than merely establishing His existence.”59 Warfield felt that theistic proofs were “objectively valid” but recognized that they could not “work true faith apart from the testimony of the Spirit.”60 In other words, one cannot argue someone into the kingdom of God purely through intellectual persuasion. Nevertheless, he maintained that rational argument or apologetics plays a vital role since faith is “a form of conviction and is therefore, necessarily grounded in evidence. . . . Christianity makes its appeal to right reason.”61

The Role of Reason

This emphasis on the role of reason has led some scholars, Peter Hicks being one, to conclude that Warfield “put more confidence in rational argument” than Reformed scholars in previous generations.62 Indeed Alister McGrath even claims to trace a “strongly rationalistic tone” in the writings of Warfield and notes with concern that Princeton absorbed uncritically a number of foundational Enlightenment assumptions. This led, he argues, to “a questionably high estimation of the role of reason in theology.”63 Warfield, along with Princeton in general, conducted theology in an epistemological structure provided by Scottish Common Sense philosophy. This philosophy held that “reality of the self, the law of non-contradiction, reliability of sense perception, and basic cause-and-effect connections provide people with considerable knowledge about nature and human nature.”64 Although Calhoun argues that the “Princetonians never allowed Scottish Common Sense philosophy to stand by itself or to determine their theological outlook,”65 it is clear that as an epistemological system it allowed the development of one’s theology in any particular direction. For example, building upon the same philosophical foundations, Yale developed a liberal theology, while Harvard was Unitarian in its outlook. Vander Molen suggests that there was a “rather easy accommodation of philosophy and theology” in Scottish Common Sense philosophy, and by being so amenable to the use of reason it enabled Reformed scholars to “adapt to modern rationalist and Enlightenment philosophy quite easily.”66

Abraham Kuyper, coming out of a Dutch tradition that sharply criticized Enlightenment thought, was ready to offer a critique of the Princeton approach.67 For Kuyper, the consequence of the Fall was a radically abnormal world, and he held that only “the sovereign, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit can overcome the rebellion of unbelief. An absolute antithesis exists in all of life (including all scholarly work) between believer and unbeliever.”68 Whereas for apologists influenced by Common Sense, sin “was a factor which could prevent one taking an objective look at the evidence for the truth of divine things, for Kuyper unacknowledged sinfulness inevitably blinded one from true knowledge of God.”69 Kuyper maintained that no one could achieve a knowledge of God through rational argument, “where reason is both a party to the dispute and its judge.”70 Thus he believed that only as God Himself breathes into the fallen minds of humans could He be known, and Kuyper argued that this work of the Holy Spirit provided “its own certainty.”71 Hence while Warfield held that it was the task of apologetics to lay the foundations for theology, Kuyper took the opposite view and regarded theology as the starting point for apologetics.

Through Dutch emigration to America and the subsequent founding of their own denomination and college (i.e., the Christian Reformed Church and Calvin College), coupled with Kuyper’s visit to America in 1898, his writings began to be more widely known.72 In the twentieth century a school of Reformed apologetics developed among those influenced by Kuyper that views as futile, and even unfaithful, the attempts of traditional apologetics to prove the existence of God by argument. Recognizing that all views of reality begin with certain ideas or presuppositions that exercise an enormous, though often unacknowledged, influence over what and how we know, it is argued that one must presuppose God before one can prove anything.73 Under Cornelius Van Til, who taught apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary from 1929 until 1972, this presuppositional apologetics has become the majority view within contemporary Reformed apologetics. Although Van Til argued that all intelligibility depends on or presupposes Christian theism, he was willing to “place himself upon the position of his opponent” merely “for argument’s sake” in order to show him or her that on such a position the “facts” that he or she looks to are not facts.74 As William Edgar has pointed out, Schaeffer’s favorite method in apologetics (pushing an unbeliever to the extreme of his or her own presuppositions to show how dark the world is without Christ) was “very similar, if not identical” to Van Til’s idea of placing yourself on your opponent’s ground for the sake of argument.75


Because of such similarities, some, including Forrest Baird, believe that Francis Schaeffer was “heavily influenced by Van Til.”76 But it is important to note that Gresham Machen—whom we discussed in the Introduction—also had a profound effect on Schaeffer’s thinking. Machen sought to continue the Old Princetonian approach of rational apologetical argument, and he was convinced that should God send a revival, one of the means that the Holy Spirit would use “is an awakening of the intellect.”77 Schaeffer, as we shall examine in Chapter Four, drew upon the Old Princetonian approach and the presuppositionalism of Van Til to develop a new style of apologetics. Because of this blending of different apologetical models mixed with some originality on his own part, many scholars have difficulty in reaching agreement about Schaeffer’s methodology.78 However, Schaeffer made no definitive claims for his style of apologetics, and although he believed that unless “our epistemology is right everything is going to be wrong,”79 he did not even regard himself as an academic apologist.80 His principal interest was evangelism, and apologetics was but a means to that end, for Francis Schaeffer was convinced that if the Christian faith is to be effectively communicated, “we must know and understand the thought-forms of our own generation.”81

This chapter has sought to demonstrate the complexity of Calvin’s understanding of the image of God. Although he maintained that the relational aspects of the image had been destroyed by the Fall, he believed that people still retained a divine presence in that, among other things, they were rational creatures. A certain ambiguity in Calvin’s writings has led some Reformed thinkers to give particular emphases to different aspects of his teaching. As shown, this has resulted in the emergence of distinctive schools of Reformed apologetics, each according a different status to the role of reason. By placing him in context and explaining his intellectual roots, this chapter has set the scene for Francis Schaeffer. We will now consider his own approach to apologetics, in terms both of the rational arguments he used and of the importance he gave to love as the “final apologetic.”